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The Politics of Eastern Europe




Jonas Daniliauskas


T.P. McNeill

March 17, 1995

The Introduction.

The aim of this essay is to answer the question: “How significant was

Alexander Dubcek in the development of reformist communism?” This question

raises the other questions. Was Dubcek the inspirer of all the reforms

which took place in Czechoslovakia in 1967-1969? How much did he himself

influence all the reformist processes? How much he had achieved in

implementing his ideas?

Dubcek became famous only in 1967. Before that he was almost unknown

in the international politics. He was known only in the Czechoslovak

Communist Party (CPCS), where he had almost no influence on the major

decisions (until 1967, of course). His promotion after the returning from

the Moscow where he was studying for three years in the advanced Party

school attached to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the

Soviet Union (CPSU), was quite rapid. In 1960 he was elected to the

Secretariat of the CPCS; in 1962 to the Presidium of the CPCS; in 1963 he

became the First Secretary of the Slovak Communist Party; finally, on

January 5, 1968 he replaced Antonin Novotny as the First Secretary of the

CPCS. He was the youngest leader of ruling Communist Party (after Fidel

Castro), and the first Slovak in such a high position. Though he stayed in

this post relatively short - until April 17, 1969, when he was replaced by

Gustav Husak, his name became known world-wide.

Why did the reforms begin?

The Czechoslovak crisis deepened in 1967, and showed itself in four


1. Slovakia;

2. The economy;

3. The legal system;

4. Party and ideology.

Since the 1962 the Czechoslovak economy suddenly began to show signs

of a critical decline. That happened inevitably, because in the Stalin

years the expansion of heavy industry was pushed at the expense of

development of all other productive sectors of the economy. The result of

this was growing inefficiency of production, failure to modernise

production technology, a decline in the quality of exports, a loss of

markets, and a drop in the effectiveness of foreign trade.[2] In August

1962 the Third-Five-Year Plan had to be abandoned before completion.[3] In

this situation the Slovaks began to act. Many of them realised that

specific Slovak interests might best be served by destalinization and even

liberalisation.[4] The problem also was the rehabilitation of the victims

of the purge trials of 1949-1954. Novotny himself and other leading members

of his regime had personally participated in the preparation and conduct of

the purge trials. So, the rehabilitation was perceived as the direct threat

to the security and the survival of the regime.[5] All these factors only

decreased the level of CPCS’s legitimacy.

The Development of Reforms.

The startpoint of the reforms was the session of the Central

Committee of the CPCS on October 30-31, 1967. Dubcek raised an objection

against Novotny and produced statistics suggesting that Slovakia was being

continuously cheated in economic matters.[6] This speech inspired

discussion what was the unprecedented thing in the Central Committee.

The next session of the Central Committee started on December 19.

Josef Smrkovsky proposed the separation of the posts of President and First

Secretary: “It is unsatisfactory that an excessive number of duties should

be piled upon one pair of shoulders.”[7]

In both sessions the three issues were at stake. First, the

implementation of the economic reforms, secondly, freedom of expression

and, finally, effective autonomy for Slovakia.

Finally, at the Central Committee Plenum on January 5, 1968, Novotny

was replaced at the post of the First Secretary by Dubcek. Also four new

Presidium members were elected to strengthen Dubcek’s position - J.Spacek,

J.Boruvka, E.Rigo, and J.Piller.

So, the Prague Spring started at the top levels of the CPCS. But

soon, as we would see, the Party will loose its ability to control the

developments. At the same time, the hot political debate started in the

press, on radio and television. The main issues were the Communist Party,

democracy, the autonomy of Slovakia, the collapsing economy, and the

problem of justice and legality.[8] On February 14, the first public

political discussion took place in Prague.

The next changes in the leadership were Novotny’s resignation from

the Presidency on March 22 and General Ludvik Svoboda’s election on this

post on March 30, Oldrich Ciernik’s appointment on the post of Prime

Minister and the formation of the new cabinet on April 8, the election of

the new Presidium of the CPCS, and the election of Josef Smrkovsky on the

post of the Chairman of the National Assembly.

On April 9, the CPCS announced its ‘Action Programme’, officially

known as ‘Czechoslovakia’s Road to Socialism’, as a basis for reforming

communism in the country. In this document the CPCS promised: (1) new

guarantees of freedom of speech, press, assembly and religious observance;

(2) electoral laws to provide a broader choice of candidates, greater

freedom for the four non-communist parties within the National Front; (3)

upgrading of the parliament and the government with regard to the power of

the CPCS apparatus; (4) broad economic reforms to give enterprises greater

independence, to achieve a convertible currency, to revive a limited amount

of private enterprise and to increase trade with Western countries; (5) an

independent judiciary; (6) federal status for Slovakia on an independent

basis and a new constitution to be drafted by the end of 1969.[9] The

Central Committee also pledged a “full and just rehabilitation of all

persons” who had been unjustly persecuted during 1949 -1954.

But this programme promised less than the people actually wanted. The

‘Action Programme’ remained outside the mainstream of the powerful social

process which had been set in motion in January.[10] The people expected

more reforms, more freedom. But Dubcek and other reformats tried to be more

moderate, to find the way for the gradual reforms. The Presidium of the

CPCS prohibited the renovation of the Social Democratic Party and the

Ministry of Interior announced that the formation of political parties

would be considered illegal. But at the same time this Ministry sanctioned

the activity of the Club of Engaged Non-Party Members (KAN), and recognised

the legal statute of another big club - K-231.

Gradually the reformats found themselves in the position which will

become vital for them all. They found themselves between two different

forces. One force was the majority of the Czech and the Slovak nations who

wanted more radical changes. The other force was represented by the

Stalinists, by Moscow, and by the leadership of the other countries of the

Warsaw Treaty Organisation (WTO).

One of the major reforms was the law of June 26, which abolished

prepublication censorship. On the next day the famous manifesto, entitled

‘2,000 Words to Workers, Farmers, Scientists, Artists and Everyone’

appeared in Literarni listy. The manifesto gave assurances of complete

support of Dubcek’s regime, “if necessary, even with arms.”[11]

The leaders of the SU, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, and East Germany

viewed the reforms taking place in Czechoslovakia as the threat for all the

Communist Bloc. The first clearly expressed concern was so-called Warsaw

Letter. It was sent on July 15, 1968, and addressed to the Central

Committee of the CPCS. It proved the clear evidence of the WTO leaders’

lack of confidence in the leadership of the CPCS, and contained critical

references to Czechoslovakia’s foreign policy.[12]There was expressed

warning that the Czechoslovak reform policy was ‘completely

unacceptable’.[13]The Presidium of the CPCS Central Committee on July 18

rejected as unfounded the accusations made in the Warsaw Letter and

affirmed that the country’s new policies were aimed at strengthening


The clear signs of crisis in relations between Prague and Moscow

appeared. On July 19 Moscow issued a summons to the CPCS Presidium,

demanding that it meet July 22 or 23 with the Soviet Politburo in Moscow,

Kiev or Lvov to discuss internal Czechoslovak developments. 9 full members

of the CPSU Politburo and the entire CPCS Presidium met on July 29 in the

Slovak village Cierna-nad-Tisou. Dubcek and the other reformats regarded

the outcome of the Cierna talks as a ‘Czechoslovak victory’. It had brought

the annulment of the Warsaw Letter; the departure of Soviet troops was

guaranteed, and the country’s sovereignty had been defended.[15]

The fact that the agreement was regarded as the ‘victory’ shows that

Dubcek and the other reformers were really driven by naпvetй and idealism

and hoped that they could create the socialism with the ‘human face’

without the interference from the Moscow side. They really underestimated

their own significance to the Soviets. Moscow regarded the reformats

developments in the Czechoslovakia as the real threat for the future of the

all Communist Bloc. A common view that the danger of a Czechoslovak

desertion from the socialist camp and a revision of foreign policy by the

Dubcek leadership hastened the Soviet decision to occupy the country


The Invasion.

On August 16 the CPSU Politburo stated that “the CPCS was loosing its

leading role in the country.”[17] This showed that the Soviet’s patience

reached the end.

“When Moscow’s nerve breaks, Soviet tanks usually start rolling.”[18]

Armed forces of the SU, East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria invaded

Czechoslovakia in a swift military action during the night of August 20-21.

Dubcek and other Czech and Slovak leaders were arrested in the name of the

“revolutionary government of the workers and peasants.”[19] The main force

of the initial invading units consisted of an estimated 200,000 troops. The

number of invaders continued to increase during the following week and

ultimately reached an estimated 650,000.[20]Most of the members of the CPCS

Presidium were shocked by the invasion. This proves again that they did not

understand how serious the situation was before the invasion. From the

Moscow’s point of view the invasion was inevitable, because the further

development of the socialism with the ‘human face’ would lead only to

deeper escalation of tensions between the Czechoslovakia and the other WTO

countries, and probably, to an escape of the country from the Communist


But the reformats did not give up. On August 21, the CPCS Central

Committee declared the statement that the invasion was taking place

“without the knowledge” of the Czechoslovak leaders, and that they regarded

this act “as contrary not only to the fundamental principles of relations

between Socialist states but also as contrary to the principles of

international law.”[21]Although there was no organised resistance to the

overwhelming occupation forces, Czechoslovak citizens, spearheaded by

students, resorted to a wide variety of means to hamper the invaders, and

several general strikes took place.[22]

On August 23, President Svoboda flew to Moscow. His journey

represented an effort to find a way out of a situation: he was, in effect,

trying to help the Soviets find a solution for the Czechoslovak crisis

based on mutual political compromise.[23]On August 26 the Moscow agreement

was concluded. The major outcomes were: (1) Dubcek was to carry on as the

First Secretary; (2) the invasion forces were to be gradually withdrawn;

(3) censorship was to be reintroduced; (4) the CPCS was to strengthen its

leading position in the state.[24]One may assume that certain personnel

changes were also assumed in Moscow, since resignations followed in due

course. These changes included the removal of Dr. Kriegel from the CPCS

Presidium and the chairmanship of the National Front; of Ota Sik as Deputy

Premier; Josef Pavel as Minister of Interior; Jiri Hajek as Foreign

Minister; Zdenek Heizar as Director of Czechoslovak Radio; Jiri Pelikan as

Director of Czehoslovak Television.[25]

The invasion led to the formulation of so-called Brezhnev Doctrine,

first formulated in a Pravda commentary on September 26, which amounts to

denying in principle the sovereignty of any “socialist” country accessible

to the SU. It asserts the region-wide right to intervention.[26]

For both rulers and ruled, the invasion of Czechoslovakia proved once

again that the Soviets would use force to prevent developments they defined

as contrary to their vital interests. The line they drew in 1968 to define

their vital interests was the Leninist hegemony of the local Communist


But the Soviets did not achieved what they wanted at once. What

happened was that the invasion failed to achieve its primary purpose, which

clearly was to produce a counterregime a la Kadar.[28]

The Situation After the Invasion.

The Dubcek leadership made great efforts after the invasion to

satisfy the Soviets while trying not to compromise itself in the eyes of

the population.[29]

Probably the major reform after the invasion was the creation of the

Slovak Socialist Republic. On October 28, the National Assembly approved a

constitutional bill transforming the hitherto unitary state into a

federation of two national republics. On January 1, 1969, the Slovak

Socialist Republic came into being.

Another crisis emerged in January 1969. On January 7, the new

measures were taken designed to keep the press and the other media more

strictly under control. In some cases, pre-publication censorship was


The event which finally decided the fate of Dubcek is known as the

‘ice-hockey game affair.’ On March 28, the Czechoslovak ice-hockey team won

over the SU team in World Ice Hockey Championship Competition. The same

evening anti-Soviet demonstrations occurred throughout Czechoslovakia.

Aeroflot office was destroyed in Prague. On April 11 Gustav Husak declared

that it was ‘high time’ to take radical steps to introduce order.[31]

Finally, on April 17 at the plenary session of the Central Committee

Dubcek was replaced by Gustav Husak (before that - the First Secretary of

the Slovak Communist Party).

At the same session the CPCS Presidium with its twenty-one members

and the Executive Committee with its eight members were replaced by an

eleven members Presidium of which Dubcek (but no longer Smrkovsky) was

still member. A few days later he was ‘elected’ Chairman of the Federal

Assembly with Smrkovsky as his deputy.

On January 28, 1970, the Central Committee plenum ‘accepted the

resignation’ of Dubcek from the Central Committee. And finally, on June 25,

1970 at the session of the Central Committee he was expelled from the CPCS.

This was the end of his political career. But only until the end of the

Communism regime in 1989. At the end of December 1989 he was elected

Chairman of the Czech parliament.

Conclusion: Was the Reformist Communism Ever Possible?

The primary goal of Dubcek’s reforms was the creation of the

socialism with a ‘human face’. Broadly speaking, the Czechoslovak reformers

sought an adjustment of the standard Soviet model of socialism to the

realities of what they considered an advanced industrialised socialist

country enjoying a tradition of democracy and humanitarianism.[32]The

stated opinions of the reformers could be summed as follows: (1) the CPCS

should no longer maintain a monopoly of power and decision making; (2) it

should rather prove its goals through equal competition by permitting a

clash of ideas and interests; (3) the abandonment of this monopoly would in

effect mean a sharing of power and permit criticism, opposition, and even

control on the CPCS’s own exercise of power.[33]Of course, Dubcek was

against the creation of the opposition parties, but he was for the

pluralism inside the National Front. The essence of his reform conception

was not the possibility of pluralism in the accepted sense but, rather, the

obligation upon the CPCS to prove that its program was the only valid one

for socialism.[34]

It was very naive to consider that Moscow will remain indifferent to

such developments. Gradually the Soviets understood that the reformers are

not controlling the reforms, and this led to the invasion. The Soviet

interests were threatened almost exclusively by developments inside the

Czechoslovakia. In other words, precisely by that ‘human face’ which Dubcek

wanted to give Czechoslovak socialism.[35]

There was one thing which Dubcek considered to be not important, but

in fact, this led to the end of the reforms. He underestimated the impact

of his own reforms upon Moscow. The Soviet reaction to the reforms was

quite logical and inevitable. The Communist power elite would never have

accepted conditions which would make the free play of political forces

possible. It would never given up the power.[36]

So, was Dubcek significant in developing the reformist communism? In

the short term - yes, but in the long term the practical meaning of his

reforms was nil. All the things he reformed were returned back. The only

positive impact (in the long term) of the reforms was the psychological

impact of the attempt to improve the improvable thing. Communism can not be

reformed. The only way to change it is to overthrow it completely. There is

no way in the middle. The reformist communism is simply an utopia.


1. Ames, K., ‘Reform and Reaction’, in Problems of Communism, 1968, Vol.

17, No. 6, pp.38-49

2. Devlin, K., ‘The New Crisis in European Communism’, in Problems of

Communism, 1968, Vol. 17, No. 6, pp.57-68

3. Golan, G., ‘The Road to Reform’, in Problems of Communism, 1971, Vol.

20, No. 3, pp.11-21

4. Golan, G., ‘Innovations in the Model of the Socialism: Political Reforms

in Czechoslovakia, 1968’, in Shapiro, J.P. and Potichnyj, P.J. (eds.),

Change and Adaptation in Soviet and East European Politics (New York,

Washington, London: Praeger Publishers, 1976), pp.77-94

5. Lowenthal, R., ‘The Sparrow in the Cage’, in Problems of Communism,

1968, Vol. 17, No. 6, pp.2-28

6. Mastny, V., (ed.), Czechoslovakia: Crisis in World Communism (New York:

Facts on File, Inc., 1972)

7. Provaznik, J., ‘The Politics of Retrenchment’, in Problems of Communism,

1969, Vol. 18, No. 4-5, pp.2-16

8. Sik, O., ‘The Economic Impact of Stalinism’, in Problems of Communism,

1971, Vol. 20, No. 3, pp.1-10

9. Simons, Th.W., Eastern Europe in the Postwar World, (2nd. ed., London:

Macmillan, 1993)

10. Svitak, I., The Czechoslovak Experiment: 1968-1969 (New York and

London: Columbia University Press, 1971)

11. Tigrid, P., Why Dubcek Fell (London: Macdonald, 1971)

12. White, St., Batt, J. and Lewis, P.J. (eds.), Developments in East

European Politics (London: Macmillan, 1993)


[1]Tigrid, P., Why Dubcek Fell (London: Macdonald, 1971), p.17

[2]Sik, O., ‘The Economic Impact of Stalinism’, in Problems of Communism,

1971, Vol. 20, No. 3, p.5

[3]Golan, G., ‘The Road to Reform’, in Problems of Communism, 1971, Vol.

20, No. 3, p.12

[4]Ibid., p.13

[5]Ibid., p.11

[6]Tigrid, P., op.cit., p.19

[7]Ibid., p.30

[8]Ibid., p.43

[9]Mastny, V., (ed.), Czechoslovakia: Crisis in World Communism (New York:

Facts on File, Inc., 1972), p.21

[10]Tigrid, P., op.cit., p.48

[11]Ames, K., ‘Reform and Reaction’, in Problems of Communism, 1968, Vol.

17, No. 6, p.48

[12]Tigrid, P. op.cit., p.57

[13]Mastny, V., op.cit., p.37

[14]Ibid., p.40

[15]Tigrid, P., op.cit., p.89

[16]Ibid., p.53

[17]Ibid., p.69

[18]Ibid., p.53

[19]Svitak, I., The Czechoslovak Experiment 1968-1969 (New York and London:

Columbia University Press, 1971), p.109

[20]Mastny, V., op.cit., p.69

[21]Ibid., p.71

[22]Ibid., p.76

[23]Provaznik, J., ‘The Politics of Retrenchment’, in Problems of

Communism, 1969, Vol. 18, No. 4-5, p.3

[24]Svitak, I., op.cit., p.109

[25]Provaznik, J., op.cit., p.4

[26]Lowenthal, R., ‘The Sparrow in the Cage’, in Problems of Communism,

1968, Vol. 17, No. 6, p.24

[27]Simons, Th.W., Eastern Europe in the Postwar World (2nd. ed., London:

Macmillan, 1993), p.124

[28]Devlin, K., ‘The New Crisis in European Communism’, in Problems of

Communism, 1968, Vol.17, No. 6, p.61

[29]Tigrid, P., op.cit., p.138

[30]Ibid., p.153

[31]Ibid., p.164

[32]Golan, G., ‘Inovations in the Model of Socialism: Political Reforms in

Czechoslovakia, 1968’, in Shapiro, J.P. and Potichnyj, P.J. (eds.), Change

and Adaptation in Soviet and East European Politics (New York, Washington,

London: Praeger Publishers, 1976), p.78

[33]Ibid., p.81

[34]Ibid., p.87

[35]Tigrid, P., op.cit., p.66

[36]Ibid., p.98


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